First, my assumption:  Confession and Absolution, whether we mean confession of sins in general or specific, private absolution with the pastor, is a great gift of God to His Church. Jesus said,

‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgiven the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld’ (John 20:21-23).

When we speak words of forgiveness in Christ to one another, we are not simply talking about forgiveness, not simply imparting information about Jesus, but Jesus Himself speaks through His Word to forgive the sins of the penitent sinner, namely, the one who knows he or she is broken, dying, unless Christ intervenes.

My second assumption is that the word of forgiveness spoken is Christ’s word, no matter who speaks it. So a wife, in her vocation as wife and mother, may speak Christ’s word of forgiveness to her penitent husband, and vice versa. Within our God-given vocations there are many opportunities to bring Christ’s forgiveness into the situation. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us we are forgiven to forgive when we pray, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Indeed, when we leave the Divine Service with Christ’s word of forgiveness ringing in our ears, we have a never-ending supply of forgiveness to give away to others.

Our Lord Christ, however, is so extravagant in His gifts that He also has established in the church the office of pastor. In fact, His Word commands the church to call pastors, as Paul directed Titus:

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you (Titus 1:5).

So, at Christ’s command, the church calls pastors as servants, men whom God’s Word calls “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1), men who are to serve the church and the lost world around the church by giving out the Lord’s gifts as the Lord desires. In essence, then, pastors are given a trust by God through the church. They are accountable to Christ Himself (and to the church) to give out on behalf of all the gifts Christ has for people:  forgiveness of sins, life and salvation in the Word of Christ.

We call and ordain pastors in order to make it clear both to the people and to the pastors what they are to be and to do: conduct their ministry in accordance with the Word of God and the confessions of the Lutheran church, caring for the people of God within and without by means of that Word of God. Tucked into our ordination/installation rite is a question with an important bearing on our topic.  The prospective pastor is asked, among other things, “Do you promise never to divulge the sins confessed to you?” “Yes, with the help of God!” he answers.

That implies two things. When a pastor hears a confession, whether public in church or privately, he has no choice, but he is under orders from Christ Himself to announce forgiveness. “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ…” is how one form of absolution puts it. Secondly, with private confession, never means never. That’s right. Any pastor who hears a confession of sin within this “confessional seal” must never divulge it to anyone, ever. That’s the vow. Within the context of that pastoral relationship he explores with the penitent confessing the sin whether he or she understands what true repentance entails, including taking responsibility for any consequences of sin under civil law, but he must never divulge to anyone the sins confessed to him. He must not stand in judgment for he, too, is a sinner. If the penitent needs help going to the proper authorities, the pastor ought do that, but he does not divulge what was confessed. He has one thing and one thing only to do for a penitent, truly broken sinner – and that is to speak Christ’s own life-giving Word of forgiveness. As our catechism says,

I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when the exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself (Lutheran Service Book, p. 326).

When I served as a district president for 16 years, I recommended to the pastors I served that they find another pastor to whom they might confess sins and hear in the voice of another saying, “I forgive you all your sins.” It’s a great gift of God I have sought to make regular use of myself. When pastors would ask me how they could find a pastor to trust, here was my response:  you ask him two questions. Do you have someone to whom you confess your sins? (No one can hear confessions as a pastor without regularly being a penitent himself.) If he answers yes to the first question, you ask him a second: does “never” mean never? If he answers yes (considering what we said above) you can trust him. These things, by the way, would be good questions to discuss with your pastor as well. Personally, I could not function as a pastor without this gift of God, to hear from another the voice of Jesus:  “Your sins are forgiven you.  Go in peace!”

+ Herbert Mueller
LCMS First Vice-President